Is All Truth God’s Truth?

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Listen to “Is All Truth God’s Truth” by Fred Smith

 

I still remember my response in 1985 when our local Christian radio station turned down my request to play the Judy Collins version of “Amazing Grace” because, while it was clearly a Christian song, they had qualms about their listeners hearing it from Judy Collins. “What narrow minds! What does it matter who sings it as long as the message is Christian or not inconsistent with Christian values? Why should we be so legalistic about the packaging if the content is the same? After all, it was our own St. Augustine who said, ‘All Truth is God’s Truth’”

Now, many years later, I am wondering if I have become one of those narrow people I upbraided for conforming to the law instead of the spirit of the law. Do I need Truth packaged in Christian language or am I open to God’s ability to take language and redeem it – just as Martin Luther took common drinking songs and changed the message they carried?

I am asking this question after reading a note from my friend Vinh who had attended the Willow Creek Association’s recent Global Leadership Summit. Here is the conversation.

Vinh: After coming back from the Global Leadership Summit, we are inspired to raise the bar. We want people to be on fire to change the world. We want people to feel discontent.

Fred:  I understand but I have concerns about some of the wisdom and inspirational messages that are so broad they could be spoken by anyone at any motivational conference. Maybe we could say they are universal principles but there is something nagging at me making me doubt that. It is true I don’t need the man building a house to explain load bearing walls in Christian language, and there are general laws that apply to any organization – Christian or secular – but is it really like Luther converting drinking songs to carry different content? Is it amazing grace or common grace?

For instance, while these may be inspirational and motivating, are they what we want Christian leaders to bring back from a conference?

”Only YOU can be YOU the way that YOU can be YOU!”

”If everyone believes in your vision it’s not big enough.”

”Fear has no place in your success equation!”

”Dream something so big and so amazing that it scares you and brings you out of your comfort zone.”

Vinh:  Is it ever okay, then, for pastors to use these principles that are not grounded in Scripture? Or, do you think people would take them to be Scriptural because he quoted them? Is there a place for what we call secular to be used appropriately in a church? Put another way, is it okay for Amy Grant to sing secular songs? Could she sing them, but only outside the church?

Fred:  I understand. We don’t go to leadership conferences for Bible teaching. But, I believe there is a difference between language that has been converted over against ideas that have been adopted and are motivational but not actually true. In other words, like Mr. Worldly Wiseman in “Pilgrim’s Progress”, have we in our fear of appearing narrow given people doses of good words but flawed wisdom? That is my concern.

Garrison Keillor, not known to be a fan of the church, wrote this and it rings true for me.

When a minister stands in front of people, he is interrupting what the people have come to church for. He had better have a good reason for doing that. Otherwise, he shouldn’t stand up and talk. We don’t need the minister unless he has something that the Spirit has put in his heart to say. The important thing is to have something in your heart, look out at the people, and try to find a way to say what is in your heart right then and there. We don’t go to church to hear lectures on ethical behavior, we go to look at mysteries, and all the substitutes for communion with God are not worth anyone’s time. A minister who stands up and occupies twenty minutes of the worship hour only has to say one thing for the sermon to be worthwhile – just one clear image, one proposition that you can take home with you…All the minister has to do is tell the truth…The Gospel message is not easy, and ministers who try to make it more pleasant than it really is are doing a disservice. The Gospel is not really for nice people. It is not for people who believe that what is important is to eat the right foods, enjoy good entertainment, dress well, get regular exercise, and have better and better sex and get good at it. In fact, the Gospel tells us that those things are not of paramount importance.”

So, have I become what I once criticized? Oh, and Amy Grant can sing wherever she likes!

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 8 comments
  • Keith Sparzak
    Reply

    Interesting angle on an old question, Fred. Having attended the GLS (remotely) last week, it became clear again that the line where Biblical Truth and truth that is biblical can be fuzzy grey.

    Whether it is due to seasoned, tempered wisdom acquired over years of ministry (and life, in general) or simply fossilization peppered with nostalgia, I have become more narrow in my views related to what we should call God’s Truth the older I get.

    The subtle, and not-so-subtle, claims that “this is from/of God”, whatever the “this” may be, needs to be fact-checked so that we are simply are not swallowing “fake good news” from alleged or real trusted sources. I am sure that my years at Mars Hill caused heightened sensitivity to this subject.

    Sorry for any negative political undertones or inferences associated with the metaphor. ;-))

    Keith

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Keith. I’m trying to think if there is any way to have positive political undertones! Not likely in this environment…but don’t get me started. Yes, while the differences are not as polarized as they are in politics, I think we have more than our share of interpretations for what is Truth and what are truisms. I’ve been reading in Exodus and Luke where the Israelites and John the Baptist are saying much the same thing: “Are you the one? How do we know?” I think we have lost a good deal of credibility and people don’t believe we have been with God.

  • Luder Whitlock
    Reply

    Bravo! Well said.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Luder. A friend wrote and said, “That was pretty sneaky how you had Garrison Keillor say that for you instead of saying it for yourself.” I suppose he was right. Still…

  • Howard Freeman
    Reply

    Great post, especially as I wrestle with my own second-half (I’m 55) posture toward “Truth.”

    I think a lot has to do with the messenger’s motivation. A couple of the examples you cited–Luther taking dated content and making it current (“relevant”), or large gathering speakers employing catchy bromides–are each focused on manipulating the audience toward accepting what lies underneath: a difficult truth.

    And reading Keillor’s quote, I found myself longing for what he was imaging for us: cool water that truly quenches the thirst but which requires that I get up off my soft pew cushion and go up to drink from what is perhaps a crude vessel.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Howard, I am 72 and it is true that things do become more clear but also more complex with age! I don’t know if Luther was looking for relevance as much as he was for leverage. He saw something moving and grabbed on. One of the better things about living in a bit of isolation (small town in Texas) is you can let go of relevance altogether!

  • Ryan Skoog
    Reply

    So good, Fred.

    My (hopefully humble) critique of the phrase “all truth is God’s truth” is it makes you the determiner of truth and then you assign your determined truth to God. Which is scary.

    I’m trying to instead say “Jesus is Truth” and then thoughtfully square up everything else I encounter to Jesus with fear and trembling.
    This way, we are not looking everywhere for truth, but looking everywhere for Jesus … who still ‘plays in 10,000 places’

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Ryan, start quoting Peterson and Hopkins to me and you move to the top of the list. The problem is you have nowhere to go since you are already there!

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